Go west, young band

Last Updated 16 February 2013, 13:29 IST

From playing at a small basement club to having a Top 10 single, performing live and having two nominations at the Grammy Awards, The Lumineers has come a long way. Jon Pareles relates the band’s success story.

The Meadowlark isn’t exactly the big time. It’s a basement club, capacity 72, with a bar occupying half the room and a barely raised stage where three’s a crowd. Sipping a $2 Bud Light during a happy hour, Wesley Schultz, the singer and guitarist in the Lumineers, fondly looked the place over.

Not so long ago, in 2010, he recalled, the Lumineers would play the Meadowlark’s open-mike night “every Tuesday religiously.” At that point the Lumineers were the songwriting team of Schultz on guitar and the drummer Jeremiah Fraites, usually just shaking a tambourine.

The Meadowlark was a gathering place for the musicians in Denver’s close-knit music scene — a place where the Lumineers would run into local folk-pop heroes like the songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff and the band Paper Bird. And there, two songs at a time, the Lumineers were building the local following that would begin the band’s momentum toward its current Top 10 single, Ho Hey, and two nominations at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, for best new artist and best Americana album.

A few days later the Lumineers were in New York, rehearsing for ‘Saturday Night Live’. At NBC’s Studio 8H, Fraites dismissed the band’s chances at being named best new artist; the other nominees are Alabama Shakes, Fun., Frank Ocean and Hunter Hayes. “We’re not going to win,” he said, though he was slightly more optimistic about the Americana nomination. “But the exposure will help sell more tickets to shows, and hopefully people will hear the whole album and give us a little bit more longevity in this business.”

With its folksy guitar and its foot-stamping, tambourine-driven beat Ho Hey arrived as a startling anomaly in the pop Top 10, where it’s surrounded by auto-tuned voices and electronic beats. Mumford & Sons, the English band that decisively re-established folk-rock as a commercial force with their 2009 album ‘Sigh No More’, didn’t breach the pop Top 20 with that album’s biggest hit, The Cave. But Ho Hey, with its chanted hos and heys and its deceptively upbeat chorus has reclaimed pop radio for the acoustic and the hand played. It’s one more hint of a pendulum swing back toward naturalism in pop.
“It’s really short and catchy, and people can remember it after they’ve heard it once or twice,” said John Ivey, senior vice president for programming at the Clear Channel radio chain and program director of KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, which was among the first Top 40 stations to pick up Ho Hey after the song conquered the radio format called alternative.

Taste of success

The Lumineers’s self-titled debut album was released in April 2012, and over the last nine months, the Lumineers — now a five-member band — have been almost continuously on tour as their gigs have grown from club dates to the opening slot at Dave Matthews’s arena shows.

The Lumineers’s success — their album has sold about 9,00,000 copies — leveraged Denver’s cosy, supportive local scene with East Coast ambition. Until Schultz and Fraites picked up and moved to Denver, the Lumineers had been, in Schultz’s blunt term, a ‘failure’.

Schultz and Fraites grew up in Ramsey, and have been writing together since 2005. Along the way, Schultz said, he changed from being a wordy singer-songwriter to prizing melody first.

Trying to get noticed, they played open-mike nights in New York City and aspired, in vain, to move up to the small clubs on the Lower East Side. “We wanted to play the Living Room, or Pianos, or the Mercury Lounge, but we never got anywhere close to that,” Fraites said. “We thought that was like Madison Square Garden.”

At the city’s coldly competitive open-mike sessions, “everybody comes in and sees their friend’s band and shuffles out,” Schultz said. “It was impossible to build, to break through that.”

Schultz, now 30, was living in Brooklyn and scrambling to pay the rent. When Fraites, who is 27, graduated from college, they decided to move elsewhere.

They considered London, Philadelphia and Boston. “And then,” Fraites said, “we said, in our ignorance and naivete: ‘Let’s move to the middle of nowhere. Let’s go to Denver.’ The idea was to eliminate distractions. It wasn’t necessarily Denver.”

The Lumineers arrived in October 2009 and shared a house. “Those guys went to that open-mike night like it was their job,” said EsmePatterson, a singer from Paper Bird. “They went there every week and showed up in clean shirts and just played their hearts out. That’s why this city immediately latched on to them.”

But Schultz was initially suspicious.

“People would come up, they’d give you feedback,” he said. “I was just so used to having my guard up, and someone wanting something if they were going to be that nice. I didn’t understand the social norms.”

Singing from the heart

Before moving here, Schultz had sent messages to dozens of Denver musicians he’d searched out on Myspace. One, the keyboardist Stelth Ulvang from the band Dovekins — now a member of the Lumineers — offered help and contacts. For the Lumineers’s first Denver gig, they joined the Dovekins at a common event in Denver: a house show, a party with live music. “You just sing in the open air, stomping on the floor,” Schultz said.
It was a spirit the Lumineers would maintain as they started to tour more widely. They recruited a cellist and harmony singer, Neyla Pekarek, through a Craigslist ad, and they released a home-recorded EP. At clubs, house shows and do-it-yourself spaces, partway through a set, the Lumineers would carry their instruments into the audience and begin stamping and chanting to start Ho Hey.

It was a “tactic” Fraites said. “We drove through the night, and we had to make our mark, and we had 45 minutes to do it. Ho Hey was our ace of spades.”
It got people’s attention and, eventually, a booking at the Living Room in New York, followed by a return engagement with a weekly residency in March 2011. There they were courted and eventually signed by Christen Greene from the management firm Onto Entertainment.

Soon the band was fielding offers from labels large and small, some of them no doubt looking for the next Mumford & Sons. The Lumineers chose a one-album deal with the independent Dualtone label. They weren’t expecting to be in the Top 10.

The Lumineers had completed a home-recorded album in Denver. But they were persuaded to hold it back and remake the songs in a professional studio. And what may at first sound like arrangements tossed together on a back porch actually, on closer listening, reveal careful choices about how instruments, vocals and effects are deployed.
“It’s very minimal,” Schultz said. “We always just hated clutter.”

The band almost left Ho Hey off the album. “Recording it took months and months and months, and we didn’t like any of it,” Schultz recalled.

At one point he and Fraites were about to use a two-man version recorded in a bathroom for the reverberation of the tiles. Instead, they tried again and came up with what Schultz calls “a layered stomp thing” that he compared to Queen’s We Will Rock You — not exactly a folk ditty.

At the ‘Saturday Night Live’ rehearsal, the Lumineers were set up like a house show, on a stage hung with lampshades. They stamped and grinned their way through Ho Hey and their new single, Stubborn Love, for an audience of cameramen and technicians. Between run-throughs Ulvang turned to his band mates. “I was doing some quick math in my head,” he said, and went on to estimate that the Lumineers had played Ho Hey some 2,000 times over the last five years.

It wasn’t a boast or a complaint, just a measure of how long it took the Lumineers to become an instant sensation.

(Published 16 February 2013, 13:29 IST)

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